Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The Pope has made his annual address to the Cardinals. This is his chance to sketch for the leadership his sense of what he’d like to see emphasized in the coming year.

I want to say a bit about it here because of what he has said, and also because of what the American mainstream media are leaving out.

As exemplified here the American MSM have merely selected the material of immediate interest to their own agendas and left everything else. Thus the Pope is concerned about the abuse-crisis (which – take your pick – started in 1985, 1991, or 2002, or all three).

More on abuse below. I’d like to go through the entire piece (only a few pages long; the English translation is here).

Because, frankly, this thing’s a doozy.

He starts off, with a disarming predictability, quoting some Latin: Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni - “Stir up your power, Lord, and come”.

But for anybody who has spent too much time with either Lefty ‘outrage’ or neocon bluster-posture, and thinks that such stuff passes for either maturity, wits, intelligence or diplomatic competence, the Pope’s follow-on comments are worth the first two (or four) years of whatever is left to a once-fabled Ivy League education.

In a marvelously gentle and innocuous-sounding by-the-by, he offers a bit of obscure Latin Church history: this prayer, he papally confides, dates back to the era “when the Roman Empire was in decline”. [italics mine]

Instantly, “in the twinkling of an eye” as St. Paul would put it, you are transported onto a plane of existence and skill-level far beyond anything Americans are used to anymore. “In the twinkling of an eye”. Or, as an iconic old American TV show would suddenly splash across the screen: “BIF! POW! WHACK!”

Because suddenly his hearers are transported back to that very real and sobering era in Western history when the Great Hegemon had overextended itself, given itself over to the most debauched and deranged governmental antics, and … the Church was there, and remembers.

As the Pope puts it: “The disintegration of the key principles of law and of the fundamental moral attitudes underpinning them burst open the dams which until that time had protected peaceful coexistence among peoples. The sun was setting over an entire world. Frequent natural disasters further increased this sense of insecurity. There was no power in sight that could put a stop to this decline. All the more insistent, then, was the invocation of the power of God: the plea that he might come and protect his people from all these threats.”

The Church, he reminds you gently, remembers. And through its institutional memory (80-plus, actually, isn’t very old in Vatican timeframes) he remembers.

You can ask yourself to what extent the Pope is describing a historical event of 2000 years ago, and to what extent he is describing … ummm … something current. The description seems applicable to both the past and the present.

It’s of more concern to think about how many people around the world, who do not rely on the American media to form their opinions, are seeing this phenomenon.

And I don’t mean ‘perceiving’ it – as if it were all merely a matter of how you hold you head, or whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, or merely the result of a bit of undigested beef – but actually seeing what’s really going on ‘out there’, beyond one’s own attitude, expectations, hopes, fantasies, dampdreams, and general ‘perceptions’. Seeing – as the old philosophers say – the objective reality and not simply the subjective perception of the reality. Or seeing merely the subjective perception because you somehow have concluded that there is no objective reality; that since so many blind men report so many different things about the Elephant that it must be that the Elephant doesn’t actually exist.

American decline – and the multifarious, multivalent derangement that has fueled it – is an Elephant. And before long – as the Civil War soldiers used to like to tell newbies – the Elephant will have to be faced. In the Civil War case it was the Elephant of close-up combat; in Our case it is the Elephant of a national decline across a broad spectrum, fed by deeply poisoned wells of thought and action.

The Pope, it may occur to the perceptive reader, is playing varsity ball here. And an awful lot of folks, especially around here, may have brought a knife to a gunfight.

Even more ominous is his accurate perception that the Empire had reached a tipping point where “there was no power in sight that could put a stop to this decline”. Which throws some very maturely cold water on the fatuous American presumption that it will all work out because America is all about Progress that will never end (the New Left) or that America is God’s Deputy so God always covers for it – like some old-timey Southern pappy, swimming in oil money, who always covers for his obstreperous kid (the New Right).

The Boomers and cadres could live with a Pappy like that; Ben Cartwright – not so much.

If American ‘Abundance’ (as I discussed in my recent Post on David Potter) is now coming to an end, perhaps its free-ride, get-out-of-jail-free existence that can give the finger to Consequences is also coming to an end. Such that We might soon have to pray like Edward G. Robinson’s hood with his back against the wall: Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?

It’s anybody’s guess what the New-Lefties will do, since they have declared God a hypothesis for which they no longer have a need – and an oppressive hypothesis at that, or what the Fundamentalist nation-idolaters will do now that their Golden Idol is running out of gold and has troubles of its own.

We live in interesting times. And the Pope knows it far better than We do.

But then, sinful and incomplete and imperfect and lumbering as the Church can be, she still lives day in and day out in the existential adventure of the Vulcan Board: where Great Things are at stake, where Things Unseen and clouds of Presences Unperceived are forever “ascending and descending”, in stern or gentle ministration to humans who are still struggling to bring genuine Truth and Love – those ultimate Realities – into this human life and history. Neither JFK’s “long twilight struggle” nor the glorious march of the assorted cadres can hold a candle to that Great Adventure, that Great Mission, that the Church lives with every day.

Stir up your power, Lord, and come! The Pope hears in this prayer the anxious desperate cry of the disciples who watched the boat filling with storm-waters as Christ slept in the stern. Their faith was “sleeping”, not Christ. But now, of course, faith is not “sleeping” – it has been banished, or invested in Elvis-like entreaties for lotsa nice stuff.

The world – especially the West, under the so often whackulent and frakkulent influence of an increasingly deranged imperial hegemon (behaving with increasing intensity like some Caesar who is losing his grip on sanity as well as competence, and in any case without the guidance of any interior Integrity) – is in profound trouble, and on a level of existential challenge that the current American radar can’t even detect.

In a stroke the Pope speaks both to the hegemon and beyond it to the peoples of the planet.

And then he segues seamlessly into Hildegaard of Bingen, a 12th century woman (Abbess in an era when that Office held huge authority, and raised to Sainthood by the Church) who acutely held the Catholic clergy to high standards indeed.

The Pope quotes her: “And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.”

She brooked as little mediocrity in priests as she did in the members of her own Abbey. And she had no qualms about giving the Pope of the day a piece of her mind.

Benedict, having recounted some of her vision and her recommendations, says to the Cardinals that “We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves.” [Italics mine] I haven’t heard any recent President say this to the Cabinet or to Congress, although it would certainly be a step in the right direction, especially if it were in writing and ‘on the record’. But the Pope doesn’t have to worry about demographics. And the Game he is playing is on multilevel-board, several vital levels Beyond the checkerboard time-passing that fills the American media’s days.

If there are failures and humiliations, then they must be grasped and turned into the occasion for substantive improvement. Rather like military officers would do: if you make a mistake, learn from it and make things work better the next time.

And in the best tradition of mature competence, he tells the Cardinals that in order to fix what has to be fixed, it will be necessary to examine “the context” of those 1970s when much of whatever went wrong seemed to reach a particular efflorescence. Child pornography, sexual tourism, the treating of bodies and souls as if they were commodities, drugs, and an overall truckling to the “tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind”.

He paraphrases the attitude of that era as “no pleasure is ever enough, and the excess of deceiving intoxication becomes a violence that tears whole regions apart”.

But then he closes his wings and dives to grasp the real core of the problem: “and all of this in the name of a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it”.

By this he refers back not only to the subject that was treated at length in his predecessors 1993 “Veritatis Splendor”*, but also to a profound and vital reality that has bethump’t the species since the beginning. Freedom, in a nutshell, cannot stand alone as a Good; if you use it to do evil or if you don’t know the difference between good and evil, or don’t believe there is a difference, then the ‘freedom’ you have is going to be limited indeed. An unskilled pilot who thinks he has the absolute freedom to fly his plane in reverse is going to find out the hard way just how ‘freedom’ without any grounding in objective knowledge and without a subjective commitment to the discipline of abiding by such truth can lead to catastrophe.

In the1970s, to recall the context of that era, strong cultural currents pushed the assertions that all sex was ‘good’ and anyway was nobody else’s business, and there were even those newly-liberated ‘voices’ who insisted that sex with children (or other species) was ‘good’.

Even in Catholic theology – and you didn’t have to travel far within the American Catholic fold to hear this sort of stuff – there were those who insisted that there is no such thing as something that is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in itself, by its very nature. Indeed, many ‘valorized’ ideas insisted that there was no such thing as a human nature in the first place. And that if you were going to have to be ‘judgmental’ then you’d have to look at intentions and consequences – because you can’t just go around calling stuff ‘evil’ or ‘good’.

Benedict notes that John Paul II robustly dismissed this sort of thinking: there is ‘objective’ Good and Evil; humans can know that reality; and that knowledge simultaneously gives them a Shape for their freedom and lays upon them a moral responsibility to use their freedom to support the Good and choose against Evil.

It was all very judgemental, but then a pilot who doesn’t know how the plane actually works and who doesn’t use that knowledge to judge his contemplated actions isn’t going to be in business for long. Nor are his passengers going to be long for this world.

It is no surprise, I think, that the same New Left that ‘valorized’ such dampdreams as total-autonomy and being-nonjudgmental and sex-as-fulfillment has turned on the Church that has always stood like a firewall in the way of ‘liberation’ as the New Left defines it, working from checkerboard-maps of existence that cannot begin to comprehend the complexity of the Vulcan Chess Board upon which humans must work out their lives.

The Pope doesn’t note, but might have noted, abortion and pansexuality and torture and – given the concern for child welfare – the wide and long-lasting prescription of powerful psychoactive drugs to children who – as if it had only recently developed – had trouble developing attention and focus (a task which in less enlightened times was undertaken by parents). Perhaps he doesn’t want to risk tripping the cartoon-wire, as it were.

He then moves on to a bit of in-house discussion about some meetings with various of the Orthodox episcopacy and the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Orthodox Church. And he wants the Cardinals to grasp Orthodoxy’s recent efforts to reduce “Christianophobia”, that hostility to what the Christian message stands for, that spreads around the world in the postmodern age even more than in the modern age. The Pope implies that the harm that from a rejection of what the Christian message offers to humanity will harm all peoples, though aimed only at Christians.

His thoughts here are prompted by his recent visit to the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East. It was held, appropriately enough, on Cyprus, that densely-textured and troubled island where great religions have shared the same geographic space for centuries. Old hurts must be let-go, because “The wrongs and the deep wounds of the past were all too evident, but so too was the desire for the peace and communion that had existed before. Everyone knows that violence does not bring progress – indeed, it gave rise to the present situation. Only in a spirit of compromise and mutual understanding can unity be re-established. To prepare the people for this attitude of peace is an essential task of pastoral ministry”.

Again, his insight that “violence does not bring progress” stands four-square in the center of his thoughts, drawing upon his own experience, no doubt, of Germany’s unhappy experiences with ‘violent progress’ during the Third Reich in his youth.

The immediate issue is religiously-based violence, increasing in a Middle East (and a Europe that has taken in so many immigrants from that area) where the great religions have shaped the various cultures and where ‘differences’ can stoke deep emotions indeed. Human beings must be adept in the mature competences of reason and patience necessary to strike the complex dynamic balance of a ‘tolerance’ that enables civil comity and peace while not abandoning the vital Ground upon which cultures and lives are built and in which they and their peoples are vitally rooted.

If matters of ultimate meaning, especially when they have to share the same geographic turf, create the potential for disagreement and strife, yet it cannot be realistic or sane to simply wish-away the deep human need for the Beyond or, in the postmodern style, the Beyond itself.

I think there is food for American consideration here as well, although it lies below the surface of the thought (which is not a place most Americans look unless given some help). The ‘revolutionary’ sensibility – in the European, not the Framers’ sense of it – which was imported into this country bigtime through the Frankfurt School in its second phase (see my immediately previous Post), is almost by its very nature dependent upon ‘violence’ in some form or other.

While the democratic and deliberative Vision of the Framers, and the ethos they sought to support as the American key of public political discourse, was precisely intended to enable the Citizens to deliberate in an atmosphere of mutual reason, with an aim to arriving at a workable consensus as to how to order life for the common-weal, yet the revolutionary sensibility is antithetical to that ethos by its very nature. Because the very dynamic of the revolutionary cadre is that there is a great evil, which only the cadres and the ‘revolution’ can see, and which the rest of the populace is too dim or too invested in the ‘status quo’ to admit, which therefore not only justifies but requires revolutionary violence. ‘Democracy’ in this scheme doesn’t work, can’t work, and must be sidestepped or neutralized in order for the cadres to establish ‘revolutionary progress’.

Over here, the many ‘revolutions’ since the Sixties, guided by the thinking of the government-heavy Frankfurt School, have worked not so much through physical violence but through the less-bloody but equally pernicious violence of manipulation and distortions of truth; so much so that after 40 Biblical years not only can the Citizenry barely distinguish between truth and untruth, fantasy and reality, vision and illusion, but the government itself no longer sees the need to make such distinctions. Fear based on fears will do very nicely as a civic fuel, thank yew very much.

Which has reduced American politics to a hodge-podge of fearful and fearsome cartoons, caricatures of serious civic and public concerns and of mature public deliberation.

Which brings him to his third and final point, in another masterful segue.

“Alexis de Tocqueville, in his day, observed that democracy in America had become possible and had worked because there existed a fundamental moral consensus which, transcending individual denominations, united everyone. Only if there is such a consensus on the essentials can constitutions and law function. This fundamental consensus derived from the Christian heritage is at risk wherever its place, the place of moral reasoning, is taken by the purely instrumental rationality of which I spoke earlier. In reality, this makes reason blind to what is essential. To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake.”

He touches on the often-unmentioned Ground which religion, and especially Christianity, provided through Western culture to the Enlightenment project. While the Enlightenment thinkers sought to free society and culture and politics from the influence of the Church as it had existed in the Dark Ages and the Medieval era, and in so doing figured that folks could find some non-transcendent, purely this-worldly basis of authority and belief on which to conduct a civilization and its civic and public affairs, YET they were working in the still-strong afterglow (sort of like the still usable ‘daylight’ of early dusk) of the powerful and comprehensive Transcendence imparted to the West by the Medieval spiritual vision.

While most of the Framers were from different Protestant traditions, they found common ground – wittingly or unwittingly – in the shared results of common moral formation and a common spiritual imagination. Their common assumptions as to what constituted ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, what made for ‘character’ and ‘virtue’, were anchored below the surface of their ideas in the common ground of Greek and Roman experience, as then enriched by centuries of Christian thought and contemplation.

They could have the ‘light’ without the ‘sun’, as it were, in that still-bright and warm dusk of the Enlightenment. Classical Liberalism (not the same as the shallow, revolution-addled ‘liberalism’ of current American politics) sought to build on the presumption that ‘modern’ humans could ground active benevolence and reason in purely this-worldly soil, with no need for the hard drilling in any serious transcendental bedrock.

For all its good intentions, that Classical Liberalism was built on sand – to use the Biblical image. And it was doomed to insufficiency as a life-Ground the same way that the plan of reading a book outside after sunset is doomed: no matter how much ‘light’ you seem to have when you start out just at sundown, you are going to be running out of sufficient light in a finite amount of time.

In that sense, nicely, it is the transcendent Beyond which provides the Ground that does not queasily shift, the Light that does not regularly fail.

Soused with their Abundance, so dense and layered that it seemed inexhaustible, such that even idiots and fools could get rich quick, Americans have not often contemplated the demands imposed by a this-worldly dimension too shallow and shifting to securely anchor and Ground their deepest and most genuine Selves. The descendants of the Puritans, desperately seeking to square that circle, came to assume that if you got rich then it proved that you were ‘good’ because otherwise God would not have favoured you with wealth ... but that was a ramshackle approach fraught with problems.

The Pope, noticing – I think – the increasingly wild thrashings of a great imperium in decline, and recalling how the Church has seen this sort of thing before, seeks to call the West and the world to a deeper and denser awareness of what is actually necessary to sustain humanity and its civilization.

This may seem, to the happy-faced and to the manipulative, like wayyy too much ‘darkness’ and ‘downness’, wayyy too much ‘unrealistic moralizing’. But it is the Pope’s point that humans are moral by nature and essence, and to ignore that fact is to condemn any ‘progress’ to nothing more than a queasy, cheap simulacrum of genuine fulfilment of humanity’s possibilities and its role in this world.

It will be interesting to see what happens in all this.


*John Paul II’s Encyclical is an extended (about 70 pages) treatment of the difference between genuine freedom and false and illusory freedom, and how humans – especially in the modern (and postmodern) world – fail to distinguish between the two types of freedom, thereby causing huge suffering and precluding genuine fulfilment in their own lives and the lives of others. The text is available as a link here, along with a good synopsis.

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